Authors: James Axler
Philboyd nodded. “I’ve always wanted to take a look at that guy. According to Grant, he seemed like a barrel of laughs.”
“If by laughs you mean near total genocide of the human race,” Brigid countered.
Philboyd shrugged. “That kind of attitude makes me less squeamish about disassembling them to find out how they work.”
Brigid smiled at Philboyd. “Trust me, we wouldn’t mind that. He would, and considering that he escaped from a singularity—”
“Yeah. Problematic,” Philboyd responded. “So your major problem is that you’re trying to figure out if you could fit an artificial brain inside a human head, while
still maintaining enough processing power to hack the Cerberus mainframe.”
“And how would it know the proper encryption for our mainframe?” Philboyd asked.
Brigid sighed. “It managed to get a sample of the kind of mathematical theorems that could be developed by the person who designed the encryption.”
“So we’re looking at a few dozen tetrahertz of processing power,” Philboyd speculated. “The whole brain would have to be artificial, but not necessarily inorganic. And it would have to take up more space than the usual brain, which actually only utilizes half the available room inside of the human skull. The human brain only utilizes a fraction of its cognitive ability, so if we were to allow for a minimum of human equivalency, we’re looking at an organ twice the diameter of the standard brain, and that extra diameter goes purely toward higher functions.”
“It could work?” Brigid asked.
“Walking, moving, breathing, eating, all of that’s handled by the reptile brain, which is a core of neural tissue at the base of the skull, with fingers extending through the core. The upper lobes have all the stuff necessary for personality,” Philboyd said. “The exact nature of the design is beyond me, but we’re looking at the square cube law. For every time an object’s size is doubled, its mass is cubed. We take that cubed level of mass and make it an efficient form of computer, based off the template of the human brain…”
Brigid winced. “All right, I know what happened.”
Philboyd frowned. “But you’re not sure that Thrush would have access to that kind of technology.”
“He and a thousand of his alternate bodies are living in a globe a quarter the size of the moon that flitters between dimensions effortlessly,” Brigid countered.
Philboyd nodded. “Okay. He might have access to that kind of technology.”
Brigid leaned against the armored shutter over the cafeteria door. All the tension left her and she sighed, suddenly released from a crushing grip of doubt. Her shoulders had been clenched so tightly, looking for some signs, some form of proof. Now that she had it, she felt right again, and the strangling grip of her suspicions relaxed.
Philboyd rapped his flashlight against the shutter. He got an answer on the other side. “Who’s the robot brain?”
Brigid looked at the door. “Kane.”
Philboyd froze before he could tap something out in code. “What?”
The astrophysicist looked at the door and took a step away from it. “He wouldn’t happen to be in there, would he?”
“I was keeping an eye on him from the door when the power outage struck,” Brigid said.
Philboyd took a deep breath. “So that door opens up, we’re pretty much screwed because we’ve got a fake Kane running around.”
Brigid nodded. Something flashed in the corner of her eye and saw that it was a door intercom control. The digital readout flashed a line of random seeming numbers after all the LEDs came to life on it. Brigid looked at the screen, memorizing the numbers on sheer reflex.
“Who’s there?” came the image.
“Brigid,” she typed into the keypad.
“Good,” was the response. The numbers passed by again. She consciously noticed that they were mixed with regular numbers, followed by the ASCII image of a horse head on a base. Suddenly patterns began forming, unbidden in her mind. The fast string of numbers formed a code that she managed to recognize instantly. Chess moves on a board. “Trying to make sure this stays online. Working off an improvised battery.”
“Everyone okay in there?” Brigid typed into the keypad.
“Yes. Kane’s helping us with the door,” the response came. From the chess moves, she recognized that it had to be Morganstern sending the text messages on the intercom. At first she thought that Morganstern had been attempting to give her his moves in their ongoing game, but there were far more than seven piece movements. Eight boards had been indicated by the alphanumeric code, and already, she was moving pieces in her mind.
The chess strategy was utterly random, not having anything to do with previous games, but then she repeated the chess maneuvers, all of them working at once, laying down lines in their wake.
They weren’t game moves. They were instead forming letters on the chess board in block letters.
“Kane fake,” the quick string had said. Had Morganstern actually input that information in the actual terminal, there would be a good chance that the fake she was aware of would have torn his head off and used it to batter open the blast panels. Coding the message in the form of chess moves gave Baptiste the warning, while resembling random program testing and glitches.
“Thanks, Daryl,” Brigid typed back.
“Door released,” Morganstern entered.
Brigid stood back from the door, drawing her TP-9 from its holster. Philboyd walked behind her, fingers plugged into his ears. Brigid tucked the weapon behind her hip as the door lurched. Fingers clawed around the jamb and the man she had assumed was Kane was attempting to open the door. She could see his muscles stand out on cable taut arms. There was no mistaking the lean, powerful musculature of the man, and finally the door had been pried open.
She could see the familiar gray-blue eyes staring at her.
“Brigid, what happened? You get stuck in the hall?” he asked.
Brigid Baptiste didn’t answer. She shot the man in the forehead with her pistol.
growing tired of people using his forehead for target practice. First the idiot Bres had done minor damage to his internal cooling system, and now
the Baptiste woman had planted a bullet just above his brow. He lowered his head, sneering in derision at Brigid, the brass button of a flattened bullet snagged in the folds of his forehead bandage. The high-tensile polymers of his artificial skeleton were sufficient to resist the might of Bres’s powerful arms; the few hundred foot pounds of pressure released by a small-caliber handgun weren’t going to cause much damage.
“Baptiste,” Thrush-Kane said with a sigh.
“Well, if my speculations weren’t enough, a bulletproof skull is the surest evidence of your illegitimacy,” Brigid said, still holding the pistol at eye level.
“Kane’s a damn idiot for thinking he can do better than you, Baptiste.”
Brigid shrugged and fired again, this time aiming for a different part of the man’s face. Thrush-Kane shifted ever so slightly in the brief moment it took to translate the flexion of her finger muscles into a dropped hammer. The 9 mm slug chewed off a chunk of cheek flesh, but the bone held. Another movement and Thrush-Kane reached for her wrist, driving the handgun to aim toward the ceiling.
“Why are you trying to kill me? I want to help you eliminate Enlil,” Thrush-Kane inquired, his bloodied face close to Brigid’s.
The archivist brought her knee up between the doppelganger’s thighs, an impact that should have distracted even Kane at his best. She felt his testicles mash against his pubic bone, but Thrush-Kane’s face didn’t register
any pain. What Brigid felt was an unholy amount of pain on her wrist bones, loosening the grasp on her pistol.
“A kick to the nuts, Baptiste?” Thrush-Kane inquired. “I would have thought Kane was a better instructor than—”
Wynan and Morganstern both jumped onto Thrush-Kane’s shoulders, their scrawny arms wrapping around his in an effort to pry him off Brigid. The scientists’ combined weight should have unbalanced the real Kane, but Brigid knew all too well that they were dealing with some form of enhanced being. A part of her mind speculated that Thrush-Kane had augmenting flat motors installed along or within his artificial skeleton.
“Let her go!” Wynan spit, writhing as he yanked on the infiltrator’s left shoulder. Morganstern sank his teeth into Thrush-Kane’s right biceps, drawing blood but not inducing any more pain than a bullet to the face or a knee to the genitals.
Thrush-Kane sighed and shrugged off the two men, then glared at them. “As you wish.”
With a flick of his arm, Brigid was deposited into the scientists’ laps. The bogus Kane had her pistol, and he twirled it like some form of Old West gunslinger before stuffing it into his waistband. Thrush-Kane looked at Philboyd, who stood in the hall in front of him. “Are you going to try to get in my way, little man?”
“Naw, man, we’re cool,” Philboyd said, stepping aside.
Thrush-Kane sneered and took off down the darkened hallway.
Philboyd immediately rushed to Brigid, who was already working her way to her feet. “You all right?”
“A little bruised,” Brigid answered. “Daryl? Wynan?”
Morganstern waved his hand, wincing in embarrassment.
Wynan was blinking. “I think I felt her butt…”
Morganstern glared at his friend. “We’re going to have words later. Go stop that fake…”
Brigid pulled Morganstern close and planted a passionate kiss on the mathematician’s lips. “Thanks.”
Morganstern blushed. “You probably came to a similar conclusion—”
Brigid cupped his cheek. “Every good mathematician needs someone to check their numbers.”
“Be careful,” Morganstern said softly.
Brigid nodded, knowing that being unarmed, she was going to need a lot of luck to deal with a cybernetic opponent that felt no pain.
As Kane looked over the scene, he didn’t know which was more of a punch to the gut, the lifeless mountain man scout, his face twisted in horror as his body was pulled and stretched like a piece of taffy, or the pile of electronic garbage that had been left behind in the place of the radio that Cerberus had left for the Appalachian mountain folk. He silently mourned for the murdered young man, catching the pained regret on Epona’s face.
“They didn’t have to do this to him,” Epona whispered.
Kane rested a hand on her shoulder. “Right now, we’ve got work to do.”
She nodded, looking numbed. “I didn’t feel his loss, and he’s been dead since before the avalanche, given the condition of his body. Why wouldn’t I have felt it?”
“Doesn’t matter right now,” Kane said. “We have to hide, because this is the first place they will look.”
“The Fomorians did this?” Epona asked.
“It wasn’t my duplicate. He wasn’t drenched in fresh
blood,” Kane answered. “Plus, I don’t have the arm span to pull a man apart like I was unkinking a spring.”
Epona stumbled along, helped by Kane. The cold water and their wet footwear made things uncomfortable for quick walking, but it was better than being fully immersed. They had taken a minute to wring out their leggings after leaving the frigid stream. Despite toughened feet on both of the veterans of the wilderness, damp boots and socks caused chafing. Going far was out of the question, but getting out of sight was vital. Kane found a small wash that was overgrown with roots and bushes.
He stuffed Epona inside and perched at the entrance, muddy canvas wraps making him imperceptible in the darkness. That was good news for the next several hours of night, but come the sunrise, Kane was going to need more than that for sufficient camouflage. He grimaced in frustration over the murder of the scout, and idly wondered where the man’s weapons had gone.
Adding a .50-caliber rifle to his arsenal would have made things a little easier in case he had to fight with Balor or the Fomorians again before dawn. Then again, judging from how the creature merely cried out in pain when shot in the eye by an AK-47, Kane didn’t harbor any illusions that Balor would be anything less than a full-blown, unstoppable menace that could only be dealt with by another god.
The radio’s utter destruction might have been a stratagem of Thrush’s to prevent Kane from calling for help
once he had escaped this far up the mountain, but Bres’s minions had completed the task with brutal aplomb. Of course the two madmen would have been in agreement about keeping the Cerberus teams from returning to this stretch of the Poconos. For Bres, the intrusion of Grant and other combatants from the redoubt would mean that the slim advantage they held over the Appalachian nomads would be gone. For Thrush, it would mean that they’d discover the ruse, although given the brainpower back at Cerberus, Kane didn’t think that there would be much of a chance to fool them. Sure, they looked identical, and after a few moments, sounded identical, but there would always be some flaw that would keep the disguise from being fully effective. When that happened, Kane could count on his allies to act without hesitation.
Kane frowned. Just because they would act didn’t mean anything. The doppelganger was stealthy enough to sneak up on him, and swift enough to knock him unconscious without a fight.
“Kane, there’s nothing we can do for them right now,” Epona said.
“Was I making too much emotional noise for you?” Kane asked.
The witch woman smiled, then cupped his nape, the touch of her fingertips intoxicating. “I wasn’t ‘listening.’ I could see it carved into your face.”
Kane snorted. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Epona said. There was a brief, awkward moment, but Kane slipped his arms around the woman,
embracing her tightly. He wasn’t certain how much intimate contact she wanted, but for now, all she welcomed was being held. That was fine with Kane.
It wasn’t a lack of sexual attraction that kept him from being more affectionate toward the witch woman. Sure, she had the title of Granny, but her age was not apparent in her features, and her body was lithe and strong. The gorgeous green of her eyes was intoxicating. It was simple logic that held him back. Giving in to his attraction for her would not only be a fatal distraction while they were being hunted, but it would also be wrong. The woman was tired, distraught, emotionally brittle. To take advantage of her would be like looting corpses, grisly and ghoulish.
Epona was in pain, and she was as concerned for her people as he was for his friends back at Cerberus. Kane stroked her jet-black hair as she rested her head on his shoulder.
“You said that you spoke with me when you first got here, but I’d been their prisoner for a few days,” Epona said.
“Bres can mold these monsters, but apparently he can make something as pretty as you are,” Kane said.
“I was afraid of that,” Epona replied. She closed her eyes, and Kane felt the psychic rustle as she picked through humanoid thoughts in the vicinity. “Bres held off on an attack, though he had been preparing for it. One good thing that your duplicate did was to throw off his timetable.”
“Right now, though, he’s got all of his troops out and on the hunt. If there are more scouts in these parts, they’ll run into each other,” Kane said.
“Yes. I’m looking for them, though you already feel that,” Epona said.
“Now you’re probing me,” Kane muttered.
Epona managed a weak smile at the sarcasm. “I can feel my scouts nearby.”
“How close?” Kane asked. “And can you contact them?”
“Not without making the duplicate suspicious,” Epona admitted. “And if I do that, there’s no telling what that bitch is capable of.”
“Your choice. Rest here, or we head for your scouts’ camp and I’ll deal with the counterfeit,” Kane offered.
The witch woman chewed her lower lip. She took a moment to wring out her damp footwear once more. Kane could see the livid flesh from where the contracting leather of her boots and the bunched fabric of her stockings had worn her feet raw. “Damn it. Usually people complain about my hooves, and now they don’t turn out to be the indestructible calluses I was proud of.”
Kane took the stockings and dug a small pit for them at the bottom of the wash. He buried them and packed the soil tightly. He sniffed the air and was pleased to note that the scent of the socks was greatly diminished. Pulling the strips he had torn for bandages, he returned and wrapped the woman’s raw, aching feet.
“What about changing your head dressing?” Epona asked. “It looks soaked through.”
Kane grimaced. “I’m not going to be walking on my head.”
Kane turned to one of his pouches where he still had several feet of torn canvas and cord. He set about making impromptu foot wrappings for the woman, tying them off at the ankles so that she wouldn’t be stepping on the wound rope when she walked. They were securely tucked, like mummy bandages from an old video he’d seen. Her calves had cord securing the canvas wrappings higher up. Epona flexed her feet and smiled.
“Not the prettiest, but they’re comfortable,” she pronounced.
“Good,” Kane said. He reached into a supplementary pouch and pulled out a tuber for her to munch on. “Eat and regain your strength.”
“According to my scan, the Fomorians are still a half hour behind us,” Epona said.
“That may be true, but I’d like to keep that lead,” Kane told her. “If not, depending on how much time it takes to bring down your impostor, we’ll have Bres and his boys breathing right down our necks the minute we put her down. Especially if I have to use my rifle.”
Epona frowned, then nodded in agreement.
“So is there some special code that you can shout to instantly convince your tribesmen that we’re not psychopaths or phonies?” Kane asked. “Because if you don’t
have that, things are going to get pretty awkward for a moment.”
“Sorry. We’re secretive and paranoid of outlanders, but we’re not that well prepared,” Epona answered. “Awkward is an understatement. A dozen men with high-powered rifles…”
Kane sighed. “I’ll think of something.”
Epona rubbed her forehead, wincing at some internal embarrassment. “Hang on.”
“You didn’t think of using your ‘familiars’ with your own people?” Kane asked.
Epona shrugged. “I’m exhausted, hurting, and this root tastes like a petrified turd. Your concentration would be off, too. Besides, you were a shot in the dark. I tried because it’s been said that you have a sight beyond normal sight. I figured it was some manner of psychic sensitivity.”
“So it wouldn’t work with someone who hasn’t been exposed to telepathy?” Kane asked.
Epona took a deep breath. “I don’t know. What I do know is that you, thanks to repeated encounters with mental projections, have a trained ear for it.”
Kane nodded. “I’ve been told that before. Even had a vision at an oracle temple once.”
Epona raised an eyebrow. “No kidding.”
Kane held his hand over his heart. “I’m not the lying type.”
“You’re going to have to come back to the mountains and tell me more about that instance.”
“It took only a few seconds,” Kane said with a shrug.
Epona rolled her beautiful green eyes. “So perceptive, and yet thick as a brick.”
Kane put his hand over his mouth to stifle an embarrassed laugh. “Oh. Come back later.”
Epona winked. “Come on, Oracle. I’ve got magic to work, and you’ve got a Fomorian to beat the hell out of.”
Kane checked the stone spear point lodged into the end of his cane. It was still strong and solid. He knew that he was going to need it.
ILAIN HAD TAKEN
to the role of Epona easily, thanks to the fact that she had also received lessons alongside the granny witch. Where Epona had been driven by her sense of duty, Cilain saw the benefits of the powers gained through the old ways. When Bres had whispered into her ear one dark evening, Cilain allowed herself to be swept up by his beauty and power. Let Epona trade in her strength in slavery to a tribe of mountain nomads; Cilain wasn’t going to let her powers make her a servant.
Cilain was meant to be obeyed. Bres also promised her youth and strength beyond her sister in faith. If she had to wear Epona’s skin for a while, then it was worth it.
Bres had layered muscle onto her, and her flesh and bone were three times as dense as a normal person’s. Cilain remained as lithe, as smooth, as perfectly formed as when Bres found her. Instead of haphazardly molding flesh and marrow onto her as he had done at the pleading of the Fomorians, Bres crafted a bride for himself, like
the great Fomorian mothers of old, the voluptuous beings who were bedded by immortal Tuatha de Danaan.
“Granny.” Erik, one of Epona’s scouts summoned her. “It appears as if the men of Cerberus do not return. Sooner or later, the Fomorians will come to us.”
Cilain matched Epona’s frown of concern, even though she welcomed the slaughtering horde that would sweep down and cleanse the mountains of this small group of vermin. It hadn’t taken Cilain long to locate the back trail to the mountain folk’s new home. Only a few brief words of small talk were needed to cement the knowledge. She wanted to smile, to revel in the joy that would come when she walked among the primitive, superstitious thugs who had felt that a leader was meant to stoop the lowest, rather than demand that her minions stretch to the heights of greatness.
They had chosen Epona because the deluded crone-in-training claimed a love for her people.
“We must wait, Erik,” Cilain answered. “Grant promised us that he would return, and he would bring the force necessary to drive the Fomorians from the valley.”
Erik’s brow furrowed as something fluttered in the night. Cilain tried to see what it was, and caught only a flash of wings that barely broke the darkness. Erik seemed as if he was suffering a headache, and Cilain took a step back from him. “What the hell?”
Cilain scanned, expanding her consciousness, and she
picked up the thing that had intruded. It was an owl that had sliced through the night, leaving only a hushed breeze in its wake. She reached for the nocturnal predator, but was rejected as the owl was already being used.
“Something’s wrong,” Cilain said out loud. “It has to be Epona at work….”
Erik squinted, his hand dropping to the knife in his belt. “Her? But why? What do you mean?”
“She is Bres’s queen, and she has the power to influence your thoughts,” Cilain said. She wished that she’d thought to have familiars on hand in the camp to provide her with a means to ward off any attempts by an escaped Epona to influence the scouts.
It was too late to be concerned with measures that should have been taken. Obviously the scouts had no clue as to the true limits of a granny witch’s power. She had to fill Erik with fear, and the only way to do that was to lie and play upon his ignorance.
The owl flashed closer again, and Cilain reached out to grab it, physically this time. A game of wills would be too slow and costly, when the death of the meddling bird would cut Erik off from Epona just as readily. As her fingertips brushed the owl’s soft down in a flash of speed she summoned from the depths of her being, something else loomed in her peripheral vision.
“Get away from her!” Kane bellowed, charging at Cilain with his spear.
The stone point stabbed at the witch’s side. While the razor-sharp rock carved through her furs easily and even
drew blood by slicing Cilain’s skin, her six hundred pounds of muscle and sinew served to be as spear-proof as a log. Kane grunted as he stopped cold, pinioned on the haft of his own weapon as Cilain growled angrily.
“Kane shows his true colors.” Cilain continued to lie. She grasped the shaft of the spear and twirled it away from her. Kane, jammed against the other end of the weapon and still clutching it from his battle charge, was lifted like a doll and flew along with the improvised lance.
Erik looked at Cilain, slack-jawed. “Epona was never that strong.”
Cilain sighed. “Stupid little boy…”
The owl flashed by her again, a flurry of wings and talons exploding in her face. Cilain swatted the bird aside, irritated by all of the interruptions. If the Fomorians were going to drag their feet so that Kane and Epona could reach the mountain folk first, then the bride of Bres had to take matters into her own hands. She grabbed Erik by the upper arm, her fingers closing down like the jaws of a bear. Bone snapped under enormous pressure and the scout screamed in agony.